who will protect the little girls of Africa?
Shortly after Christmas, I became a father – or rather, I nearly became one. I do not know how to put it exactly. I did not know I was old enough to be a teenage girl’s father. She must be sixteen, or maybe fourteen. I could not really tell. I had never met her before. I spent Christmas holed up in my little office, behind the laptop, sometimes putting finishing touches on my first feature film, The Felistas Fable, other times rewriting my first romance novella, which will hopefully come out later this year. I was feeling bad about myself that I had made a feature film before publishing a book, and that the first book I’d ever publish is a romance. Or rather the publisher thinks it’s a romance and I was not seeing it like that at all. Anyway, being holed up with two big works on the desk meant I had not shaved for a long time. Maybe I thought was Father Christmas and so had to grow a really long and unkempt beard, and maybe that beard made this girl think I could be her father. I was on my way to the saloon, but I stopped by this little shop where I always buy petty stuff to get airtime. I found the girl sitting on the bench, her face stained with tears. I asked her what the problem was, but she ignored me. So I turned to the shopkeeper, a lady we all call Nalongo, though I’ve never seen her twins. I do not even think she has a husband, but a few children are always running around her shop. Maybe she divorced the father and the twins are with him. I’ve never really found out. “Did you beat this young girl?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied. “She only wants a soda. It is Christmas and she hasn’t tasted any soda. You know how children are during Christmas.” “Ah,” was all I managed to say, as I passed over the money and got the air time cards. I glanced at the girl, the way you glance at a person who you’ve just been told has a few lose wires in the head, and I saw the fury in her eyes. Why is she angry with me, I thought, yet it is Nalongo who made the joke?
“I’m not a child,” she hissed, still glaring at me. “And I don’t want a soda.”
Tears rolled down her face, revealing the great volume of emotions that were pent up inside her. I could not stand it. So I simply nodded and begun to walk away. But hardly had I taken a few steps than she said, “Wait.”
I waited. She said something to Nalongo that I did not get, for she whispered. They talked amidst themselves for a few seconds, and I stood there sheepishly, not knowing what to do. Finally, Nalongo turned to me and asked, “Where are you going?” “To shave.” “Don’t shave. Just for a few days. You look better with your hair like that.” I did not want to look
into the mirror for I was afraid of the animal I would see. I know this Pinoy girl would be pissed off to see me with such a wild crop of mousy hair on my head, and with such scraggy beards on my chin that I might have been a monkey (Do monkey’s have beards? Maybe not. Maybe a goat.) So whatever she said, I was resolved to get a shave. “We need your help.” “You do?” “Please be my father?” This came from the girl, and it was so outrageous that I giggled (like a teenage girl).
I could be Father Christmas, I thought, since the beards were long. But clearly, the way the girl looked at me she was not thinking of Father Christmas. Nalongo came over to me and whispered the situation. The girl was pregnant. A teacher – her ex teacher from Mukono High School – was responsible. She did not want to abort. She wanted to make the teacher pay a large sum of money that would not only cater for her medical and pregnancy needs, but also pay for a course in beauty and hairdressing. The part I was to play was simple. Pretend to be her father. Scream at the teacher and threaten to throw him into jail unless he parted with three million shillings.
But I did not want to play that part. I’m not the screaming type. I’m not the belligerent type. I am not able to intimidate a fly, anyone who meets me for half a minute will be able to figure that out. I could not do what this girl and Nalongo were asking me. “Why don’t you just go to the police and arrest the man? That way, he will pay ten million if you ask for it.”
But she could not go to the police for it would involve her real parents. Then, she would not see even a shilling of the money the teacher paid. Her parents and the police would distribute it amongst themselves, the teacher would go scot free, and she would be left to suffer with the baby for the rest of her life. The best way out for her was if this teacher put the money in her hands. That way, she could be sure of making a life for herself. Apparently, her father refused to pay for her education after he found her naked with a boyfriend in the bathroom. (Her father refused to listen to her excuse, “We were only playing.”) She had developed a reputation as a loose girl, so her father did not see the point in educating a prostitute. She did strike me as the typical rebellious teenager who thinks it is cool to drink, smoke weed and go night clubbing in Gabana and Satellite Beach Mukono. I did not know why I should ever get involved with such a character. I did not even know her names.
“Please,” Nalongo said. “Help the girl. I know you don’t know her, but I was once her neighbor in Bajo. That is where she stays. She calls me aunt. She is a good girl and I want her to overcome this situation. After her parents see that she is putting herself through beauty school, they might tolerate the pregnancy, but if they know about it right now they might kill her.”
I looked at the girl again, expecting to see a bulge in her tummy, but I did not see anything. No sign to show that she was pregnant. I wrestled with the decision. I often think of myself as a social activist. It’s the first line I write whenever I’m sending out a grant application for my documentary films. I describe myself as a filmmaker and social activist. So what was I going to do about this little girl? My storytelling instincts took over. Maybe I could make a documentary about her, a film about defilement and horrible teachers who prey on their students, about ‘swaggerific’ teenagers and parents who have no clue how to handle them, who think stopping to pay their school fees is the only way to discipline a child. I could see a whole big issue there to work with, but I had to be certain of the facts. Was she really pregnant, and was this teacher really responsible? “I’ve been vomiting every morning for three days,” she said. “I missed my periods. This teacher is the only person I’ve slept with in the last six months.” She paused, then added. “Without a condom.” “Oh,” I said. It kind of made sense. I was going to suggest that she actually takes a pregnancy test, but somehow the words did not come out. All I could think about was that she had slept with other boys (how many?) using condoms, and I remember the old saying that condoms are not really perfect. So it might not be the teacher. What kind of film then would I make? “He told me he could put my name on the USE list,” she went on, unprompted, and tears were rolling down her face afresh. USE. Universal Secondary Education. A government program to provide free education. If she got her name in, she could continue going to school even if her parents no longer paid her fees. “I agreed to sleep with him. I have never slept with an old person before but I wanted to at least finish A Level.”
Of course with the baby coming, she could no longer pursue this dream. She had to drop out. Being wise, she of a skill to support herself – thus beauty school.
As I watched the tears roll down her cheeks, a selfish part of my brain wished I had a camera to preserve the moment. Unfortunately, that is how my silly brain works these days. I can only think in terms of capturing everything on camera. Instead of comforting the girl, I was thinking of how lovely a scene it would be in a film. Cinéma vérité. Pure and unadulterated documentary. But such moments never find you with a camera. It struck me how pathetic I was. For though I convinced myself that I wanted to make a social action film, a small voice whispered that all I was doing was take advantage of a little girl in her misery, the way the teacher had used her in her desire to continue studying. And the voice urged me to help her without any ulterior motives. “Okay,” I told Nalongo. “What do you want me to do?”
Ha, what happened after that is a really long story, and I think it’s best if I continued it in the next post. Right now, I have to finish this romance novella – the second one I’m writing in two months! – so pleasecome back to hear what happened to the girl. Maybe, at the end of the year, you will be seeing a documentary film about her.
PS: The follow up article is here https://www.dilmandila.com/2013/02/the-troubled-children-of-uganda.html